Updated: This story, originally published in March, has been updated in light of reports that Jihadi John was targeted by a U.S. military drone strike Thursday.
The 22-year-old man arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport on an early June day with a heart full of hope. He claimed he had a job awaiting him in his native Kuwait. A wife to marry. A new life in the Middle East to begin. Everything, he swore, was ready.
The year was 2010, and the youth, who would go on to represent the Islamic State’s shocking capacity for violence, was then called Mohammed al-Zuhary. And this day would haunt and infuriate him for months, if not years, according to revelatory e-mails released in March that provide a glimpse into the slow radicalization of Jihadi John, now identified as Mohammed Emwazi.
“So there I was at Heathrow airport Terminal three on the 2nd of June 2o10, waiting in line for the check-inn process,” he wrote days later in an e-mail to Cage, an activist British rights group that has offered counsel to young Muslims targeted for extra monitoring. “But to my surprise the check-inn lady asked me to wait aside, as a message appeared on the check-inn computer system saying that someone must see me. So after waiting for about 15min, three men and one lady all in black uniform appeared and stated they where the Police, and that they needed to interview me and check/search my bags under the terrorism act.”
As he would later claim to rights groups, journalists and embassy officials, the questioning lasted much longer than 15 minutes. It was, he claimed, a six-hour interrogation that at one point turned violent. “He then grabbed onto my t-shirt and throw me onto the wall, garbing onto my beard and lasting strangling my by my neck,” Emwazi wrote in a typo-riddled message to Cage. “All this was happing to me while the officers sat down casually not stopping or doing anything. When the Asian officer realised I was having difficulty breathing, he finally let go of my neck. At this point I was absolutely shocked and completely baffled.”
Regardless of the veracity of his account, that episode does appear to mark a turning point in the life of the man who would become Jihadi John. In mid-2010, after months of living and working in Kuwait, he traveled back to London for a brief stay before this rejection at the airport. This episode, according to a review of reports, appeared to coincide with when he shed any trace of the “calm and decent” demeanor he reportedly once maintained, continuing a metamorphosis into what the BBC found to be a “cold” and quiet “loner” itching to get into Islamic State propaganda videos.
As The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam noted, Emwazi’s story, if true, raises the possibility that Britain, in its treatment of the young man, unwittingly contributed to his radicalization. “What we are seeing is an unwillingness to be introspective about the role we play in alienating our own youth,” Asim Qureshi of Cage has said.
Then again, other young Muslims presumably feel mistreated as well and don’t run off and become vicious executioners. And there’s reason to question the assertion that he was somehow provoked by his problems into leaving the country. Some suggest that Emwazi was charting an inexorable path toward radicalization long before his run-ins with authorities. And Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, accused him of trying to travel to Somalia in 2009, where they said he intended to rendezvous with al-Shabab.
There were times when it looked as though he had potential beyond butchery. In late summer of 2009, after completing his computer science degree in the United Kingdom, he traveled to Kuwait, where he had family, and lived there for several months, working as a “star salesman” for a Kuwait City IT company, the Guardian reported.
“He was the best employee we ever had,” a former boss told the newspaper. “He was very good with people. Calm and decent. He came to our door gave us his CV.” This was unusual, the manager said. Most everyone he knew was trying to get to someplace like London — not leave it behind. “How could someone as calm and quiet as him become like the man who we saw on the news?” the boss said. “It’s just not logical that he could be this guy.”
A lot of people who once knew him are asking that same question. “I was horrified to find out the Mohammed I spent years with was this person,” one former classmate told the Daily Mail. “I don’t know what happened in his life to turn him into this.”
But even then, some aspects of the story gave some pause. Why would Emwazi abandon London, where he could make a much higher salary, and travel to Kuwait? “It seemed as though he faced some problems, maybe family, social or psychological,” the former boss told the Guardian. “I didn’t really ask. He wanted a good job [in London] and he wanted to get married, but he couldn’t and it made a problem for him.”
Emwazi said his problems would be solved if he could just make it to Kuwait, a place that almost took on mythical proportions in his voluminous and extemporaneous e-mails to Cage. In Kuwait, he could have his “new life.” In Kuwait, he would have his job. In Kuwait, he would get married. In Kuwait, Emwazi said time and again. In Kuwait.
“I never got onto the flight [to Kuwait], what was the point, I said to myself, I’ll just get rejected,” he wrote to Cage. “I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But know I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person in-prisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace, & my country, Kuwait.”
After numerous messages back and forth with Cage, in which Emwazi maintained a courteous correspondence, his tone turned darker. That September, he wrote a message lamenting the prison sentence handed to U.S.-trained Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who had been named as one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists. He called her “our sister” and recommended a renewed fight for “freedom & justice.”
Within weeks, after all of his attempts to gain passage to Kuwait had failed, Cage recommended it was time for him to take his story public, putting him in touch with a “sympathetic” journalist.
In early December, he met with Independent reporter Robert Verkaik, who had done several stories on British Muslims that accused the MI5 of “waging a campaign of blackmail and harassment.” But though Verkaik thought Emwazi’s allegations analogous to others he had heard, he thought there was something unhinged about the young man.
He seemed paranoid and severely distraught, Verkaik wrote in the Daily Mail. “He seemed to have a persecution complex and desperately wanted his story to be told,” Verkaik said. The Daily Mail security editor recalled a bizarre and rambling message Emwazi once wrote him. The youth thought British security services were tracking his every move — even when he tried to sell his laptop. After a buyer sold him the computer, he called Emwazi by his first name.
“I NEVER TOLD THIS PERSON MY FIRST NAME!!” he wrote to the journalist. “& I NEVER GIVE OUT MY FIRST NAME!! IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO KNOW MY FIRST NAME!! … I knew it was them!! Sometimes I feel like I’m a dead man walking, not fearing they may kill me. Rather, fearing that one day, I’ll take as many pills as I can so I can sleep for ever!! I just want to get away from these people!!!”
He would eventually succeed in escaping Britain but not under the circumstances he originally intended. After changing his name from Zuhary to Emwazi, he got to Kuwait finally in 2013 but was stopped. That was when he disappeared into the chaos swallowing Syria, from which he has yet to emerge. “He was cold,” one Islamic State defector told the BBC. “He didn’t talk much. He wouldn’t join us in prayer.”
In January of last year, Cage sent Jihadi John one last message, asking to “catch up” and to talk over something.
There was no answer.